The Cursed Kingdom

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TWELVE

~ BLOSSOMING EMOTIONS ~

A knock at the door startled me, causing my knee, which had been crossed over my leg, to bang against the underside of the table and nearly topple over my steaming cup of tea. Startled and my kneecap pulsing, I cursed under my breath and I made sure the sloshing brown liquid didn't go over the edge of the delicate, floral patterned cup before I turned to face the perpetrator for the unwelcome noise.

"Pardon me, Madam," the young servant said from the doorway that I regretted leaving open. Appearing around fourteen years of age, she had the aura of a trouble maker, an amused look in her eye paired with the shadow of a smirk along her lips. In her outstretched hand, she held an envelope. "A letter from His Majesty, King Henrik," she told me, bowing her head.

I stood, placing the book about Lycans I'd begun reading that morning aside on the table. The girl didn't lift her head until I'd taken the envelope from her grasp and placed it into my own, staring down at it with curiosity. The blinding white paper was thick and warm to the touch like freshly ironed cloth. I turned it over to its front and lightly brushed the pad of my thumb over the red wax seal of the Cursed Kingdom's crest, a snarling wolf with the curving tongue of a serpent standing on its hind legs.

"Thank you." I dismissed her and she did a slight curtsy before looking up and giving me a genuine smile. I couldn't help but notice her stare linger on my leather trousers, her grin widening in approval.

"Have a good day, Madam," she said before turning, her dress skirt swaying from side to side as she giddily walked away.

I turned back to face the interior of the small den Ingrid had introduced me to, who claimed she used it whenever she needed solitude herself when she stayed in the palace. It was probably the smallest room in the whole castle with only enough space to fit a table that could sit four people, a pitiful fireplace beside it, and a single arched window on the farthest wall. The restrictive, plain walls and the lack of sunlight reminded me of my home, which seemed to help my thoughts come forward a lot easier, and was exactly what I needed if I wished to ever escape and retain my sanity in the process.

I sauntered back over to my chair quickly and sat in it, not wasting another moment to rip open the envelope and feel the satisfying pop of the wax seal releasing the bottom paper against my fingertips. The parchment inside was warm as well, like it had been sitting out in the sun or clasped between someone's hands for a long period of time, and it felt about as expensive as the clothes I was wearing.

I unfolded the letter with a gentleness equivalent to how I'd handle a flower and raised my brows in awe at the beauty of the penmanship inside, tracing my name written at the top lightly with a single finger, never having realized such a simple word could look so exquisite. Every swirling, symmetrical letter was just as memorizing to look at, done with a precision that I knew must've taken the writer quite some time and I wondered why he had wasted it on me.

Raena,

Your presence these past few weeks have left an impression in my heart more worthy than any riches. I beseech you to help a wounded male by allowing me the honor of dining with you tonight not as someone with the lowly title of a king but rather as your mate.

I am preparing a feast, one too prestigious for a queen and too large for a god but seems all too humble when I think of you. I trust that you might be pleased with what I create and assure you that wearing a crown these past two centuries has not hindered my ability to use a whisk. However, one word from you and I shall eat by myself every night for the rest of my life if that is what pleases you.

I shall know your answer if you arrive in the Grand Dining Room before sun fall.

Yours,

Henrik

I let out a shuddering breath of air and stared at his signature awhile longer before folding up the letter and placing it back inside its envelope. After setting it on top of my book, I took a long needed sip of my room temperature tea, which was an interesting blend of jasmine and lemon that supposedly relieved stress and anxiety. But when my cup was empty and I was left staring at the envelope in front of me, I questioned just how well the brew worked when I felt the distinct pressure of an oncoming headache.

Burying my face in my sweaty hands that were propped up on the table by my elbows, I groaned unladylike into my palms and didn't care how many Lycan ears heard me.

"Are you going to say 'no'?" Jerium asked, walking into the room just as I'd made the noise and causing me to startle for the second time that day.

I stared at him blankly through the cracks of my fingers while he took a seat in the chair across from me, unfastening the second to lowest button on his jacket and looking sincerely interested to know my answer.

Recently, I had begun noticing Jerium's comfort around me increasing significantly within the past few days to a point where it warmed my heart to think about it. He didn't refer to me as 'Madam' as much anymore, only around other people, and he didn't bow every time he saw me either, which I was very grateful for. The only times he ever knocked anymore, unless the door was my bedroom's, were if the door was closed and he rarely asked for permission to join me at a table, which he was portraying greatly at that moment.

"Of course not." My annoyed voice was muffled by my palms. "He's the king."

"That doesn't mean you're required to accept," Jerium replied, his lips pursed, and he looked displeased by my answer. He reached over, grabbed the China glass tea kettle, and poured more tea in my cup, having a firm hold on the lid so it wouldn't fall off. "His Majesty would understand if you are not ready to pursue a relationship. But I must say, if you don't accept his invite, then I'm afraid I'll have to eat the food. It seems the king was a chef in his past life because the menu he's come up with is excellent."

I rolled my eyes at him and thanked him as he set the kettle back down on the table. "What exactly are you to him?" I asked curiously and picked up my cup, letting it warm my hands. I blew on it softly, causing the steam to waver. "What's your role in court, I mean?"

"I'm an advisor for the most part," Jerium said without hesitation, "but also whatever the king requires of me. Sometimes I'll go into the packs and run reports but my life isn't much more thrilling than that. If people ask, I just tell them I'm the Royal Secretary, although I don't have an official title." He shrugged and ran a hand through his red curls, a light shade of pink appearing on his freckled cheeks.

I brought my cup to my face but stopped, the brim brushing against my lips, when I registered a word I didn't understand. "Please excuse my ignorance, but what do you mean by 'packs'?"

"It's just the word we use for 'province' here." He waved it off like it was nothing and cracked a smile, yet again obviously amused by my lack of knowledge towards Lycan culture.

I furrowed my eyebrows. "There are villages?"

I'd never thought about the possibility of there being real villages in the Cursedlands. In the stories, my elders always made it sound like a place with no real structure except for Henrik himself, who ruled through implementing fear. Now that Jerium has said it aloud, I realized how irrational that was of me to assume such a thing. Of course there had to be somewhere for Lycans to go when they weren't in their beastly forms. However, Lycans living in houses, shopping in markets, or cordially walking down cobblestone streets was quite comical to imagine.

I knew before I could ever even consider attempting to flee the Cursed Kingdom, I needed to have a general idea of where each pack and the palace itself were located. Although I knew that wasn't his intention, I thanked Jerium internally for mentioning it.

"Yes, of course." Jerium nodded with furrowed brows, clearly confused as to why I would ask a question with such a blatant answer. "There are thousands of them spread throughout the kingdom's thirty-one provinces. Now, enough about that." He looked at his watch, a golden piece with thorn-like designs around the clock face, and gestured out the window where we could both clearly see the sun starting to set behind the mountains. "I believe you have a date to get to, Madam." He bowed his head and told me he'd take the tea back to the kitchen for me.

I smiled dryly and thanked him once more before I stood and left the room, pressing the book on Lycans to my chest, Henrik's letter pinched between them, while mentally promising myself I would read more later.

* * *

Almost two hours later, I knew I'd done something right by the looks on the servants' faces as I passed through the palace's hallways, my chin held high to complete my facade of confidence. The truth was I was nervous to eat dinner with Henrik, especially since I knew the entire goal of it was to persuade me to accept the title of his queen. I'd never shared a whole meal, since I'd ran off before we could even eat, or spent more than an hour alone with him either, and typically those short moments were filled with arguments or discomfort. I didn't expect this to be any different.

As I descended the last flight of stairs and stepped onto the first floor, the servants tending that level looked awestruck and bombarded me with compliments on my hair, my makeup, my dress, and just about anything they could see. One young male on a ladder who was polishing a chandelier called down and exclaimed, "You look incredible, Madam!"

At that moment I mentally thanked Ingrid in my mind, who had arrived almost immediately after I'd sent for her. She was responsible for my curled hair that was kept half up in braids kept together by jeweled string sewn expertly with a wooden needle into my hair. Ingrid joked with a wide smile that her years of working with stitches gave her an even better ability at decorating hair.

Since I'd never needed to wear makeup in Amaryllus, I asked her to do that for me as well. The warm shades of brown she'd chosen for my eyes matched perfectly with the shade of red of my dress, a garment that started out tight on my upper body but flared out above my hips into a wide, beautiful skirt.

"You look like a queen," Ingrid had told me as we stared at my reflection in the full length mirror. I'd smiled with thinned lips at her and then nodded, hiding the fluttering sensation happening in my abdomen. I felt like one too.

But that feeling of being able to conquer just about anything was forgotten the moment I saw the entrance to the dining room and could smell the aroma of food. My stomach suddenly growled, despite it feeling sated a few minutes prior. The scent reminded me of an elk stew that my mother used to make me when I was sick, causing the bittersweet tang of nostalgia to nip at my insides.

The double doors opened and the two guards, one I recognized and the other I didn't, greeted me and bowed. I caught them smiling at me and eyeing my dress, which left me flabbergasted and flustered. I'd rarely seen any guards lift the corners of their lips, especially not at me. It made me feel better than I ever thought I could, remembering the goddess who I'd seen leaving Henrik's office and the similar effect she gave.

"Gorgeous, Madam," the guard I recognized told me as I passed.

"Yes, absolutely stunning," the younger one with unruly curls agreed, bowing his head once more. When he looked up, his eyes patently lingered on my exposed cleavage with what I can only describe as a young boy's fascination.

Before I could react, a loud growl sounded out and rattled the room, turning all of three of our attentions to the Cursed King standing next to in front of the table that was full of platters upon platters of food. My jaw dropped at the sight, looking around to confirm there was no one else that'd be joining us, and gulped. It was enough to feed an entire village.

"Leave," Henrik bit out, his eyes glowing while they focused on the young guard, who I could've sworn gave a low whimper behind me, and his canines extended into their monstrous length. I knew for certain that there were claws hidden beneath the balled fists planted at his side and I tried my best to not think about it.

The guards bowed and quickly scurried out into the hall to close the doors, saying in unison a "Yes, sire" before shutting them and leaving Henrik and I alone within seconds.

I looked over to Henrik and noticed him staring at me, his eyes taking their time to look over me slowly piece by piece as if I was a painting and he didn't want to miss any of my details. My breathing stopped as he looked at my face with an unreadable expression as always. Then his gaze rested on my neck and stayed.

"You're not using your medicine," he stated, assessing the red and swollen skin of my mark. I knew he was talking about the salve Ingrid had given me and he was correct. It hadn't touched my skin since Ingrid's first visit, despite her scolding me many times after she saw its angered state.

"Sorry if I don't feel comfortable rubbing your saliva on my skin every night." His eyes only narrowed, looking only slightly offended. "I am right about that, aren't I?"

"If it helps, why should it matter what's in it?" Henrik asked and cocked his head, a sarcastic smirk pulling at his lips. I opened my mouth but was interrupted before I could utter a sound. "Let's not argue tonight, my stubborn female. Tomorrow you may scream at me until your throat is raw, if that is what you wish. But tonight we feast."

He walked over to his spot at the head of the table and patted the empty seat to his right before shoveling what looked like roast beef onto my plate. Knowing him, he probably caught the creature himself with his bare teeth and claws and I tried not to imagine him doing it, covered in blood the same way I'd seen him before in the gardens.

I took my time walking over and sat down. As my rear met the cushion, I realized at that moment that the only person who hadn't complimented me that night was Henrik when, in fact, I'd only dressed up for him. It bothered me to an extreme that frightened me. It's not like I actually wanted him to find me beautiful, I tried to tell myself as I watched his large hands engulf the utensils to scoop some more food onto my plate. I just want him to believe I'm actually trying to become his queen so I can steal his trust.

"What's bothering you, mate?" Henrik asked while he continued piling more and more onto my plate. By that point, the large plate that had room for enough food to feed a family of four was already stacked with a small mountain of vegetables, meat, casseroles, and all sorts of things that smelled absolutely divine. He grabbed a dinner role and placed it on its own small plate and proceeded to stand so he could grab the ladle to pour some soup with chunks of meat and vegetables into my bowl.

"Nothing's bothering me," I lied. The thought of admitting I wanted to hear his confirmation that I looked nice was embarrassing by itself.

"You're a terrible liar," Henrik stated with a sound between a sigh and a chuckle and finally began putting food on his own plate. "Your voice changes. But I suppose it's too meager for human ears to detect."

I looked down at my nails that I'd filed down until they were even and smooth. "So we are mates, correct?" It was my attempt at changing the subject, although I instantly realized by digging myself out of one hole I'd placed myself in another, one much deeper and harder to get out of.

He paused for a second, just stopped in the middle of cutting off a piece of breast from the rotisserie chicken like a statue. "Why do you ask?" His voice sounded as stiff as his body looked.

"Because I want to know," I replied simply, crossing my ankle over my other one under the table and began anxiously bouncing my knee, which was thankfully hidden under the table cloth. "I guess I just don't feel the level of intensity everyone says I should and I'm curious to know if you feel nothing at all either."

"If I felt nothing, my dear, then I wouldn't be as stiff as a damn pole in my pants now, would I?" he asked bitterly but with a hint of teasing in his tone. My eyes widened at his bluntness, my head turning away to face my plate, afraid my eyes would accidentally move to an area I didn't want to see, and I felt my face begin to burn, either out of embarrassment or anger. Possibly both. "I can't get you out of my head and yet you act indifferent towards me like I'm a piece of dirt under your pretty little foot, mate," he spat and sat back down, grabbing his chalice to take a greedy swig of his wine.

I went silent. I didn't know what to say. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to inflict such negativity. I just..." I trailed off, trying to get the words in my head together to create a coherent sentence. "You have to understand that all my life I've been told you're a monster and I can't just throw what I've been told for eighteen years away."

"Do you believe them?" As Henrik cradled his chalice, I took a second to admire a particular light blue ring on his pinky that slightly changed colors depending on the lighting. "That I'm a monster?"

I looked at his golden, human-less eyes and felt my eyes sting. Not out of sadness or fear but a conflict within me I'd never faced before. "I don't know," I answered softly, feeling absolutely helpless. My heart pounded in my chest.

He stared at me cool and collected and then took another sip of wine, gently smacking his lips afterwards. I wished I could see what he was thinking or feeling. It frustrated me that I couldn't.

A knock at the door broke our tension, startling me but had no effect on Henrik except for an eye roll. "You're late," the king barked, annoyed at whomever was on the other side.

The doors opened and I had to hold my breath when I was greeted with a plethora of warm colors about the size of a piece of furniture. My eyes widened and I covered my mouth with my hand as shock and amazement overwhelmed me. Dozens upon dozens of different flowers were arranged in a glass vase to make an exquisite bouquet, so colorful it made rainbows envious.

It was the first time I'd ever seen real flowers and I could've cried.

"My apologies, Your Majesty," the scrawny man carrying the large bouquet of flowers said with a Western accent, causing me to instantly identify him as Mage. "Where would Your Majesty prefer these to be placed?"

"Right next to my beautiful mate," Henrik told him and nodded his head at me. I looked at him with tearing eyes and he gave me a soft smile, something I hadn't known he was capable of, with a nod.

When the flowers were placed next to me, I stood up to get a better look at them all since it was so tall. Some of the flowers had petals that ended in sharp points while the others were round all the way around and felt softer than cotton, almost powdery-like.

I leaned in close and got a whiff of them, feeling a lump in my throat form. My perfume, which was supposed to smell just like flowers, did them an injustice. There was something so innocent and tender about the scent of real, fresh flowers that no person could perfectly recreate.

My eyes transfixed by the flowers, I heard Henrik thank and dismiss the florist before the double doors were opened and closed when he left.

"Do you like them, my female?" Henrik questioned, sincerely curious to hear my reply. He propped his chin on his hand, watching me.

"They're so beautiful," I choked out, a single hot tear making its way onto my face. I wiped it away with the back of my hand. "Oriana and the twins would've loved these." Despite how fortunate I was, I couldn't help but think directly to my deceased friends' misfortune. Whereas I'd been able to experience the wonders and beauty of true, living flowers, they never would. And that was absolutely devastating to me.

"I've made arrangements to have fresh flowers placed in your room every week," Henrik said. "If you ever find a bouquet you particularly like, let me know so I can have it delivered again for you."

I turned to him and said, "Thank you, Henrik." And I meant it.

He seemed pleased by my response and his eyes dulled, signaling that he was relaxed. "It's my duty as your male to make you happy. I want to make you happy, Raena." There was so much sincerity in his tone that I wanted to believe him. I did. But a voice in my head held me back, telling me it was all a part of some sort of sick game of his as this dinner and my dress was a part of mine. "Why don't you sit so we can eat? I'm sure the food must be cool by now."

So I did. I sat down and I ate a bit of whatever Henrik placed on my plate until finally I complained that I'd feel ill if I ate anymore and he hesitantly complied and began only focusing on his own meal. When he reached to get a fourth serving of everything, my stomach hurt to watch him. Suddenly, the over abundance of food I'd received in those past weeks made sense.

"Aren't you supposed to be asking me questions?" Henrik suddenly uttered after he took another sip of wine. He grabbed the bottle of red wine out of the bucket of ice and poured more in my empty glass before he filled his own to the brim.

"Questions?"

"Well, isn't that what humans do on dates?" Henrik asked, the corners of his eyes crinkling with a mischievous smile.

"I suppose," I said, fiddling with my cloth napkin. "But I wouldn't know what to ask." I looked down at my plate that appeared barely touched.

"I am your mate, Raena. There's nothing you can't ask me," he said. He made it sound so simple, like it was as normal of a function as breathing or walking.

"Alright, then." If he said I could ask him anything, then I was going to take it literally. And I wanted to get straight to the point on this one, preparing myself internally for whatever consequences arose. "What's Galycia?"

Henrik stopped mid-chew and looked at me with eyes suddenly glowing. After he swallowed, he wiped the corners of his mouth with his napkin and sighed. "Couldn't you have just asked what my favorite color is?" He joked but I was in no mood to laugh. He noticed this and sighed a second time, leaning back in his chair with his chalice in his hand. "Galycia," he said the word smoothly and with an accent I couldn't distinguish, "is the name of my kingdomβ€”What? You didn't think it was always called the Cursed Kingdom, did you?"

I was at a complete loss of words again with him. Henrik was very good at surprises. "I never thought about it, really," I said truthfully and paused before I said my next question, knowing my next question could very easily ignite the argument I'd been expecting since I held his invitation in my hands. "So what exactly happened to cause your kingdom's curse?"

I'd heard so many different stories, all so different, theorizing what had happened to cause such a damnation on an entire kingdom. Some were believable. Others were so outrageous that I laughed when I heard them. And although all had been entertaining, what I really wanted to know was the truth.

Henrik threw his head back as he took the longest swig of his wine that night before answering, "A couple hundred years ago, the Human Kingdom waged war against Galycia for its land, cutting the once noble kingdom into half of what it used to be. My home that I'd always been so proud of suddenly was the laughing stock of Trellomar." He grabbed himself more wine. His anxious behavior spurred on my own and I began sipping more of my wine as well, already beginning to feel the familiar buzz surrounding my brain. "I was young and angry, a dangerous combination. I went against my mother's orders and met with a witch to make contact with a god, the Moon Goddess to be more exact, the patron god of witches, demons, and vengeance."

A goddess? My eyebrows rose in amazement and also horror that he would attempt such a thing. From what I'd learned, gods and goddesses meddled with the physical realm and bad things could happen if it went the other direction.

"At first, she wanted nothing to do with me but somehow my idiotic self wedged itself in until I was trapped meeting her every night from midnight until three in the morning for fifty years, winning her over and doing her biddings." A bitterness entered his tone and his eyes glowed more violently. "She promised to give my kingdom the power to take back its land and make its name known throughout the entire universe. I should've known something was wrong. It wasn't until she visited me in my sleep with the intention for us to mate that I found out she'd fallen in love with meβ€”or at least, was infatuated with me. It was clear that I did not feel the same.

She was humiliated by my rejection and accused me of deliberately deceiving and seducing her because once gods make a promise, they can't go back on it. The Moon Goddess herself cursed my kingdom and me, forcing us to be her slaves once a month for all eternity, some of us forever, and twisted her promise so that we'd be feared as monsters by the whole universe, thinking that our wolf forms are signs of a lack of humanity when in reality it's our truest formβ€”something we should be proud of now used for children's bedtime stories." He shook his head, getting his thoughts together, and he said the next part a bit slower. "When people fear something, they don't respect it. They either avoid it or try to kill it like an insect that can sting. And so the renowned name of Galycia fell off the face of Trellomar and the all terrible Cursed Kingdom was bornβ€”because of me."

He reached over to grab the wine bottle once more and I stopped him by placing my hand on his right one that still rested on the table. I watched as I ran the pads of my fingers over his calloused skin, slowing down when I got to his claws. Hesitantly, I touched those as well, surprised by how smooth and sharp they were.

"Is there a way to break the curse?" I said, watching his facial expression closely.

"No," he stated a bit too sharply for my liking, defensive all of a sudden.

I went to pull my hand away but he stopped me before my hand could leave him by placing his other on top of mine, sandwiching it between his palms. I nearly choked by the warm, tingling sensations I felt where he touched me and looked up to his eyes for what felt like the first time.

"Please don't be afraid of me, Raena," Henrik said, his eyes downcast.

I looked down at the top of his scarred hand and his fingertips that ended in claws. "I'm not," I replied, my voice barely above a whisper.

When I looked back up, I felt my stomach flutter as I took him in, high cheekbones, defined jaw, dark eyebrows, full lips, and particularly his scar that somehow made him more handsome.

Realizing I was blatantly admiring him with him doing the same to me, I yanked my hand out of his grasp. It suddenly felt cold without his touch and I gritted my teeth, hating how confused he's made me with such a simple action.

"Thank you for dinner," I told him, looking away when I noticed his face began to fall with an emotion that resembled disappointment or perhaps even sadness. "And the flowers and for sharing your story. But I'm afraid I'm tired and wish to return to my chambers now."

"Yes, of course," Henrik nearly mumbled, the muscles in his jaw tensing as he ground his molars together while looking at his plate. "I shall have someone bring your flowers up to your room in the morning, Goodnight, Raena."

I felt disappointed by his curt response and that's perhaps what frightened me the most. I wanted to keep talking to him. That's why I knew I had to get out of there as quick as possible or else I was worried my feelings would prohibit me from leaving at all.

"Goodnight, Henrik," I said, my voice sounding uneven. He didn't look up at me, just kept staring straight ahead as if he was the only person in the world. Perhaps at that time, he felt like it.

My heart felt like it was being twisted in multiple directions so I turned away from him and walked out the door, every inch of myself feeling heavier than before.

* * *

The door shut quietly behind me, engulfing in pure silence. Ever since I arrived at the Cursed Kingdom, I had purposefully sought quiet places to clear my head and be alone with my emotions, too sad and angry at the world to wish to talk to another soul. But I found myself at that moment desiring everything but solitude and a lump appeared in my throat as I dragged my feet across the room, making it hard to swallow.

Sighing, I perched myself on the cushioned sofa at the end of my bed to slip off my heels. I hummed under my breath in appreciation as my red and slightly swollen feet finally felt free and the cool air kissed my aching toes, who gave me a couple cracks when I stretched them.

Next, I peeled off my dress, which took quite a while because of the annoying ties in the back and the fact that I refused to make servants dress and undress me like I was a doll. Although I knew they would be happy to do it, I imagined it to be more humiliating for both the servant and myself than helpful.

I hung up my dress back in the small wardrobe solely used for my more elaborate dresses and nightgown, which I quickly grabbed off one of the hangers. As I slipped it on, I winced in pain when the thin strap accidentally rubbed a bit too harshly against my mark right against one of the oozing scabs.

"Shit," I said to the darkness, the only light being the starry night sky barely shining in through the windows. I had to pause for a moment, close my eyes, and collect myself because of the intensity of the pain before I could carry on.

Huffing, I walked across the room to the dresser, where Ingrid had left the makeup remover amongst my perfumes. I reached over to grab the bottle and then stopped when my eyes registered the wooden jar to the left. The salve.

My mark pulsed with scorching pain and I knew that lying down for bed would be hell as it always had been, every position proving to be excruciating for the said unhealed wound. I sighed in a mix of frustration and surrender when I reached for it, assuring myself I was only using it for my benefit, so I could sleep and think clearer throughout the day.

I unscrewed the lid and dipped two fingers in the semiliquid substance, afterwards bringing them up to rub it in small circles on the irritated skin. The cooling sensation almost had me moaning aloud and I ended up saturating the whole area with it until all I could feel was its addicting relief flowing throughout my body, the strong scent of lavender staining my nostrils and snuffing out any hint of regret or embarrassment that my pride might've elicited.


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